Since publishing his debut novel, The Meursault Investigation, in his home country in 2013, Algerian journalist Kamel Daoud has been accused of much, but being unambitious is not among the many charges.
That’s what happens when you take as your inspiration Albert Camus’s 1942 absurdist masterpiece, The Stranger, and craft a complex and clever piece of storytelling that operates on multiple levels, simultaneously acting as a personal confession and an indictment of present-day Algeria.
Camus, the French Nobel-Prize winner, took the literary world by storm with his debut novel in 1942. It told the story of a detached French Algerian, Meursault, who kills an Arab on a beach for no apparent reason other than sun and sweat clogging his eyes. Meursault’s later conviction is based largely on the judgment of his character, including his inability to exhibit emotion following his mother’s death — or any emotion at all, really — rather than on the fact that he committed the crime.
Daoud’s novel has had something of the same rousing effect as Camus’s — written in French, it’s sold 100,000 copies in France alone. Taking as his novel’s main conceit that The Stranger is a true story, and that Meursault is its author, The Meursault Investigation tells the story from the perspective of the brother of the Arab murdered by Meursault.
The brother, Harun, now an octogenarian, shares many similarities with Meursault, even acknowledging as much during the course of the novel, which is really one long monologue in the style of Camus’s The Fall. “I was looking for traces of my brother in the book, and what I found there instead was my own reflection, I discovered I was practically the murderer’s double.” Here is what he sees: Two men driven to murder, two men haunted by their mothers, and two men who approach religion with disdain.
But the two do diverge.
For one thing, Meursault and Harun are moving in quite opposite directions.
Meursault has divorced himself from history, has, as he tells the investigator tasked with questioning him following his crime, given up analyzing himself. Assigning meaning to the world is something he has lost the energy to do.
Harun, on the other hand, is driven by the desire to impose form on a lifetime of quasi-intelligible incidents, the foremost of which is the murder of his brother and its aftermath, which has sentenced its victims — Musa, Harun, their mother — to anonymity.
“There’s not a trace of our loss or of what became of us afterward,” Harun tells his interlocutor. “The whole world eternally witnesses the same murder in the blazing sun, but no one saw anything, and no one watched us recede into the distance.”
If Meursault is the stranger, Harun’s brother is the invisible man. But the tragedy here is that Harun understands he can’t will his brother into being, that he’s forever been written out of history by Meursault, in whose book “The word ‘Arab’ appears twenty-five times but not a single name, not once.”
In this way does Daoud, a popular columnist in Algeria who has become a vocal critic of the government, set up one of his main theses: that both the French colonial system, the French Algerian population of which (known as pied-noirs) populated Algeria for a century and a half, and Algerians themselves are complicit in the country’s current state of affairs.
As Daoud sees it, the Arab continues, in a way, to be shot over and over again on that same beach, sentenced to a posthumous anonymity, but instead of Meursault being at fault, today it is by his own hand. As he explained in The New York Times, the current Algerian government uses French colonialism as a fear tactic, and has turned Algeria into a “typical” Arab country operating under the control of “a de facto dictatorship with Islamists, oil, a vast desert, a few camels and soldiers, and women who suffer.”
It is important to note that Algeria did not partake in the Arab Spring. Maybe it’s the fact that two devastating, and devastatingly long, wars wracked the country over the last 60 years — the Algerian War of Independence, which lasted from 1954 to 1962, and the Algerian Civil War, which lasted most of the 1990s and left tens of thousands of people dead. Whatever the case, as Daoud noted in an essay in Guernica in 2011, while Algerians are often outspoken individuals, the last time there was anything like a national will was 20 years ago.
All of this carries deeper resonance when one considers how this atmosphere has impacted Daoud, who had a fatwa placed on his head by a little known imam last year.
In an absurd twist both Camus and Daoud could admire, The New York Times reported it wasn’t even clear what the fatwa was for, whether it stemmed from “Mr. Daoud’s outspoken television appearances abroad or his novel’s character, who rebukes a neighborhood imam. Or perhaps both.”
What was clear was that a religious figure in the country thought Daoud’s words worthy of death and a threat towards him socially acceptable. And he was right; authorities were nonplussed by the incident.
Harun’s final act is certainly provocative, heretical even. It echoes The Stranger’s own denouement, in which Meursault denounces God as a waste of time, and life as meaningless. But even more than that, Daoud’s narrator, while recounting his story, is also recounting that of his homeland, one that has taken a few bullets of its own in the last half century.
As in The Stranger, where no Arab is ever addressed by name, so too do Algerians of today operate nameless in the shadow of their rulers. And just like Harun, just like Meursault, they’ve come to recognize the absurdity of their predicament and, instead of rising up, have capitulated to the crime of life.
Harun knows that his time is running out. He’s come to terms with this, inasmuch as he can. The real question is what lies in store for his country.
I read a lot of wonderful books this year, many of them new, and others simply new to me. I loved Amity Gaige’s Schroder, and Victoria Redel’s Make Me Do Things, Roxana Robinson’s Sparta – to name but a few.
But this year was, for me, most profoundly about re-discoveries and re-readings. I wrote an article on Albert Camus which had me, for some months, living again with those books I felt so passionately about when I was young: not just The Stranger, The Plague and The Fall, but also The Myth of Sisyphus, The Rebel, and his earliest writings, the glorious little book of essays Noces, which is essentially a love letter to his native Algeria, and which can be found in English in his Lyrical and Critical Essays.
Then, too, I’ve been writing an introduction for a forthcoming reissue of Jane Bowles’s wonderful only novel, Two Serious Ladies, a book I consider almost my blood relation. I came upon it by chance years ago in college, and felt so strongly about it that I wrote my undergraduate thesis on her work. Her astringent wit, her particular eye, her combination of levity and profound seriousness – Jane Bowles is unlike anybody else. You can read about her all-too-brief life in Millicent Dillon’s fine biography, A Little Original Sin.
In the Venn diagram of the apparently vastly disparate Albert Camus and Jane Bowles, there are more overlaps than you might think (eg North Africa: Algeria for him, Morocco for her), but chief among them is Simone Weil, whom both writers admired and whom Camus championed. So now I’m reading Simone Weil – Waiting for God, to begin with – in order to make sense of why both Camus and Bowles have such significance for me.
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Following is a continuation of my interview-conversation with David Shields, author of 10 books of fiction and nonfiction, most recently Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, the subject of this interview. Click here for Part One, wherein we discuss the nature of a “manifesto,” love of lists, Leonardo DiCaprio, Joyce, Chekhov, and the novel as a dead shark.
The Millions: Another element of conventional fiction which you take up is the notion of a resolved plot arc, the falsity and myth of the “complete narrative action,” in favor of the entropic, the incomplete, the underprocessed. I wondered, though, in assembling the text-collage that is RH:AM, if you had some sense of narrative movement or “story” as you arranged, ordered, and created a structure for its fragments.
David Shields: Oh my goodness yes. The book pretends to be entropic, but it has an unmistakable movement to it. Collage is not a refuge for the compositionally disabled; it’s an evolution beyond narrative (as I say, more or less, in the book). The book gets increasingly personal, keeps developing its argument(s), keep opening out and inscaping in; I hope that is manifest. If the book is a collection of 619 riffs, it’s not working for the reader. It’s an absolutely sustained argument about appropriation, genre, and doubt.
TM: What about process? Did you arrange and rearrange a million times? Lay out little post-it notes on a giant canvass on the floor, Jackson Pollock style? Had you been “collecting” quotes in a notebook for 20 years? Etc. (I recall that in workshop you would sometimes pull out from your pockets your notes, scribbled on the backs of grocery and ATM receipts. Ah, the romantic image of the scatter-brained artist.)
DS: A dozen years ago or so, you took a graduate course with me, Sonya, in self-reflexive gesture in documentary film and essay, did you not? [Yes – good memory, exactly 12 years ago.] Can’t remember if I was teaching the course then. Over many, many years I’ve been teaching the course, and the reading material for the course has tended to be a very unwieldy packet that I developed, hundreds if not thousands of passages from various people. And each year, the packet would get slightly more refined, focused, and the big break for me was seeing how I could push these passages into rubrics, otherwise known as chapters. Then I needed to organize each chapter for maximum effect, and all of the chapters for maximum effect. I thought it was still a first draft for the book. But I read it and kept rereading it and rereading it, and I realized that for me, at least, the form worked, as is, to my astonishment, in a variety of ways. A rabbit pulled out of a hat—my favorite kind of book.
TM: Junot Diaz recently wrote on a New Yorker blog that President Obama’s central failing of the last few months has been absence of narrative. He wrote: “Ideas are wonderful things, but unless they’re couched in a good story they can do nothing[…] The story always wins.” Did you happen to catch that, and what do you think of that?
DS: I didn’t see Junot Diaz’s blog, and I haven’t read his work. But he’s a fiction writer; of course he’s going to say that: story is all. I’d say pretty much the opposite. I’m interested in ideas. I love the first chapter of The Great Gatsby, because Nick Carraway is thinking really well about things for 20 pages. The rest of the book is a snooze, because it’s just a bunch of sops to the lazy reader, otherwise known as not particularly revelatory plot developments. I wake up a little for the last 2 pages. So, too, I adore the introduction to Slaughterhouse-Five. The best 30 pages Vonnegut ever wrote. That’s the entire book, compressed to thought, to consciousness. What separates us is not what happens to us. Pretty much the same things happen to us: birth, love, death. What I want is to gain access to how you think. That will assuage my loneliness. I want work that foregrounds that to an extraordinary degree. A few such books are published as novels: Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello, Camus’ The Fall, Proust.
TM: What, if any, would you say is the distinction between the kind of raw, collagey, reality-fiction art forms that most interest you, and plain old reality TV of The Real World, Jon and Kate Plus Eight, Keeping Up With the Kardashians variety?
DS: I’m not really very interested in reality TV, I must say. There’s kind of a difference between, say, Ross McElwee’s self-reflexive documentary films—which have had a stronger influence on my aesthetic than just about anything I can think of—and Jon and Kate. What is the distinction? An animating, artistic intelligence that is organizing material into a metaphor that ramifies.
TM: Given RH:AM’s “evangelistic” impulse, does the possibility that the majority of readers who have a fidelity to fiction and the conventional novel form won’t be reading RH:AM trouble you at all?
DS: Hmm. To me, the book is much more self-critical than that. Also, see answer to the question about novels. If you’re opposed to abortions, don’t have one. If the argument doesn’t fly for you, I’m sorry that I didn’t bring you along. But fiction and poetry have ancient cheering sections. Thrillingly great nonfiction—essay as art—needs a fuller articulation of how and why epistemologically sophisticated nonfiction (Bouillier, Wenderoth, McElwee, Simon Gray, Spalding Gray, Cyril Connolly, Nietzsche, Markson, Lesy, Adler, Brainard, Dyer, Fusselman, Galeano, Lindqvist, Manguso, Maggie Nelson, Sebald, Trow, Thernstrom, Castle, Bernard Cooper, Annie Dillard, Pessoa, Mendelsohn, Spiegelman, Hardwick, Cioran, Rousseau, Duras, Pascal, Rochefoucauld) is about as exciting as prose gets. For that task, I’m your man. One needs to shout to be heard sometimes.
TM: Funny, though: it’s obvious to fiction writers that nonfiction rules the day, commercially speaking – money, readership, likelihood of getting published, etc. When I teach fiction classes, there’s always a demoralizing moment at the end of the term where I tell students to have low expectations for publishing fiction, because fewer and fewer people read it; if they want to get published and want to be read, they should write nonfiction. Why do you think each side sees itself as the David and the other as the Goliath?
DS: It’s a funny idea. Writer as perpetual spy in the house of love. Victim-lit as a way to psych oneself up. Crucial for me in writing this book—and in a way I’ve been writing it for thirty years, and certainly for the last fifteen years—was my vexed sense of the way in which great nonfiction is badly boxed in by straightahead memoir, on the one hand, and straightahead fiction, on the other. If I felt nonfiction ruled the day, the book may not have had its (willed? invented?) raison d’etre. The winner may get to control the story, but the loser always has the best stories.
TM: You quote at length Kevin Kelly, from an article in the New York Times:
Copies don’t count anymore; copies of isolated books, bound between inert covers, soon won’t mean much. Copies of their texts, however, will gain meaning as they multiply by the millions and are flung around the world, indexed, and copied again. What counts are the ways in which these common copies of creative work can be linked, manipulated, tagged, highlighted, bookmarked, translated, enlivened by other media, and sewn together in the universal library. The only way for books to retain their waning authority in our culture is to write texts into this library… In the clash between the conventions of the book and the protocols of the screen, the screen will prevail.
Then you go on to write:
It’s important for the writer to be cognizant of the marginalization of literature by more technologically sophisticated and more visceral narrative forms…I don’t think it’s a very good idea to write in a vacuum. Culture, like science, moves forward. Art evolves.
Did you at all consider publishing RH:AM in a more digitally-driven or technologically hybrid form, i.e. not primarily as a book? Do you think your work from here forward will be in print/book form, or something that incorporates more a fundamentally multi-media conception? The approaches of documentary and other cinematic forms, as well as music, for example, seem to figure integrally into your Manifesto.
DS: Interesting. One offer I had from a UK publisher was to publish the book as a series of tweets. I was tempted, but I decided not to go that way. I feel like my bluff got called. Here was my chance, but I was still somewhat loyal to good old print. We shall see where I go next, Sonya—whether this book will find its way digitally and what I’ll do next. I’m extremely interested in opening up the floodgates, but part of me still loves the monumental old dam up on a hill. I’m working it out.
TM: Lastly: in RH:AM’s epigraph, you quote Picasso’s “Art is theft.” In the first sentence of the book, you write about artists “smuggling” reality into their work, and then later you quote Bacchylides: “One author pilfers the best of another and calls it ‘tradition.’” At The Millions, editor Max Magee recently published an interview with an anonymous “book pirate,” and the interview prompted a lively and heated discussion among readers, and a record number of comments. How are we to negotiate/understand this new landscape of borrowing and stealing and sharing literary content in a way that is generative for literature, not merely parasitic?
DS: “After decades of measures that have drastically reduced the public domain, typically by extending the terms of protection, it is time to strongly reaffirm how much our societies and economies rely on a vibrant and ever expanding public domain. The role of the public domain, in fact, already crucial in the past, is even more important today, as internet and digital technologies enable us to access, use, and re-distribute culture with an ease and a power unforeseeable even just a generation ago.” (Public Domain Manifesto)
Two-thirds of Shakespeare’s Henry VI (parts I-III) is taken directly from other sources (especially Plutarch)—none of which are cited, of course.
As I say in a preface to the appendix (I wanted to publish the book without any citations, but I wound up needing to do so, to comply with Random House’s legal obligations), “I can hardly treat the topic deeply without engaging in it. That would be like writing a book about lying and not being permitted to lie in it. Or writing a book about destroying capitalism, but being told it can’t be published because it might harm the publishing industry.”
“Who owns the words? Who owns the music and the rest of our culture? We do. All of us. Though not all of us know it, yet.” (William Gibson)
Art is a conversation between and among artists; it’s not a patent office. Reality can’t be copyrighted.
The citation of sources belongs to the realms of journalism and scholarship, not art. Citation domesticates the work, flattens it, denudes it, robs it of its excitement, risk, danger.
I want to make manifest what artists have done from the beginning of time—feed off one another’s work and, in so doing, remake it, refashion it, fashion something new.
Cortázar: “To quote someone is to quote oneself.”
Walter Benjamin: “Method of this project: literary montage. I needn’t say anything. Merely show. I shall purloin no valuables, appropriate no ingenious formulations. But the rags, the refuse—these I will not inventory but allow, in the only way possible, to come into their own: by making use of them.”
“My taste for quotation, which I have always kept—why reproach me for it? People, in life, quote what pleases them. Therefore, in our work, we have the right to quote what pleases us.” (Alain Robbe-Grillet)
“Language is a city, to the building of which every human being has brought a stone, yet each of us is no more to be credited with the grand result than the acaleph which adds a cell to the coral reef that is the basis of the continent.” (Emerson)
“Genius borrows nobly.” (Emerson again)
“Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.” (T.S. Eliot)
“About the most originality that any writer can hope to achieve honestly is to steal with good judgment.” (Josh Billings)
“People are always talking about originality, but what do they mean? As soon as we are born, the world begins to work upon us, and this goes on to the end. What can we call our own except energy, strength, and will? If I could give an account of all that I owe to great predecessors and contemporaries, there would be but a small balance in my favour.” (Goethe)
“A great man quotes bravely and will not draw on his invention when his memory serves him with a word as good. What he quotes, he fills with his own voice and humor, and the whole cyclopedia of his table talk is presently believed to be his own.” (Yet again Emerson, who is unfailingly brilliant on this subject).
The mimetic function has been replaced by manipulation of the original.
Nicholson Baker, The Anthologist (there are passages in this book that I love as much as anything Baker has ever written–which is saying something)
Grégoire Bouillier, The Mystery Guest (I reread this book seemingly monthly, attempting–futilely–to figure out how he managed this brief, perfect magic trick.)
Joe Brainard, I Remember (I’m very late to the party on this book, but it’s an extraordinary assemblage of seemingly unconnected–in fact, profoundly interconnected–sentences)
Albert Camus, The Fall (see The Mystery Guest)
Robert Clark, The Angel of Doubt (an as yet unpublished manuscript; a gorgeously written, deeply felt, and relentlessly smart sequence of intereconnected essays about religion, art, and sex, not necessarily in that order)
Cyril Connolly, The Unquiet Grave (see The Mystery Guest)
John D’Agata, About a Mountain (a beautiful embodiment of what is to me a
central principle of great nonfiction: it’s not remotely about what it purports to be about)
Amy Fusselman, The Pharmacist’s Mate (see The Mystery Guest)
Simon Gray, The Smoking Diaries (4 volumes of diaries; read together, they dwarf his plays and are commensurate, I swear to god, with Proust)
Spalding Gray, Morning, Noon, and Night (see The Mystery Guest)
David Kirby, The House on Boulevard Street (very late to the party on Kirby, too; I love his work; “poetry as well-written as prose,” as good ole Ez said)
Phillip Lopate, Notes on Sontag (I disagree with Lopate’s assessment–in my view, too generous–but I love the book)
Sarah Manguso, The Two Kinds of Decay (one of the least sentimental and most deeply emotional books I’ve ever read)
Alphonse Daudet, In the Land of Pain (see above)
Maggie Nelson, Bluets (utterly brilliant)
Marguerite Duras, Hiroshima Mon Amour (the screenplay; the best book she ever wrote)
Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy (where it all started and ended)